This spring I wanted to design a project that would challenge my English students to both see and express their lived realities in new ways. I taught Walt Whitman once before, years ago, but remember the feeling that I had missed an opportunity for my classes to go deeper with his work. In the past I collaborated with The Painted Bride arts center on a project that included Field Notes. In addition, I was able to locate class sets of Claudia Rankine’s profound book-length lyric, Citizen.
Putting these texts and previous experiences together, I developed the ideas for Songs of Ourselves. We alternated weeks, spending a total of two weeks with Whitman and two weeks with Rankine before I shared the full project description with students. (One wonderful things that students did during our second week of Whitman was, in groups, to create short films titled Living Like Whitman.) After many discussions of and activities with the texts, I introduced students to the goals for our project:
- You will be writing a series of Field Notes that share your lived reality, speak to current issues, or point to necessary understandings.
- You can think of these Field Notes as a way to make public who we are, what we believe, and what we know.
- Ultimately you will decide which of your Field Notes to revise and publish as part of our Songs of Ourselves website.
- Field Notes may be inspired by Whitman or Rankine but are ultimately your creation.
Some essential elements of the success of the project were providing initial models for students. I made sure these examples were varied and opened up thinking about multiple possibilities for the work (see these examples in the project description linked above). All of the early writing was considered rough and I gave students full credit as long as they met the word count. I only told students about the specific requirements for each Field Note when it was time to work on that note — I wanted them to be able to focus on one at a time.
Field Note #1: Free Choice
Field Note #2: Try Rankine’s technique of writing in second person
Field Note #3: Integrate multiple quotes from Whitman or Rankine
Field Note #4: Free Choice (Do something different. Use the Field Notes written by classmates as inspiration.)
After students had four rough Notes they had to do a Self -Reflection followed by two Peer Reviews and revisions before having a conference with a teacher and getting final feedback. Only then were they allowed to post. This process and required revisions changed the final products. Everyone knew that first drafts would not be accepted as final work and there was a shared goal of producing work that everyone would feel proud of.
Once Notes began to be published on the site, I regularly shared them on the projector at the front of class and we celebrated what authors were accomplishing with their work. I love the way the individual Notes come together to produce a greater, complex and messy whole. In the end the site is truly a document of the lives of young people from Philly in 2023: Songs of Ourselves.